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Historic samples reveal malaria spread

Tuesday December 3rd, 2019

DNA from malaria parasites eradicated 75 years ago has shown how one of the most common forms of the disease spread from Europe to the Americas in the 15th century.

The research, led by University College London in the UK, the Institute of Evolutionary Biology (IBE), Barcelona, Spain, and the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, involved genome sequencing of a malaria parasite sourced from blood-stained medical microscope slides used in 1944 in Spain.

Researchers compared genetic data from the slides to a global dataset of modern Plasmodium vivax genomes and discovered that the eradicated European malaria parasites were genetically most similar to tertian (P. vivax) malaria strains that are found in the Americas, including Mexico, Brazil and Peru.

The study is published in the latest edition of Molecular Biology and Evolution.

Co-lead author Dr Lucy van Dorp, of UCL Genetics Institute, said: “Being able to obtain a full genome of extinct European Plasmodium vivax from these decades old slides allowed us to ask questions as to how malaria may have been affecting us centuries ago.

“We found a clear relationship with modern Central and South American strains, establishing historic links spreading disease between these continents.”

Analysing the sample, which was taken from the medical collection of Dr Ildefonso Canicio, a Spanish malaria researcher from the early 1900s, enabled the team to estimate that the last common ancestor between the eradicated European strain and the ones still present in the Americas was in the 15th century - when Europeans first made contact on the continent.

The team also found that the 1940s malaria sample already had some genetic mutations that are resistant to modern anti-malarial drugs, despite them not having been in use at the time.

Professor Carles Lalueza-Fox, palaeogeneticist at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Barcelona, said: “My initial motivation to study this ancient malaria strain is the fact that my father contracted malaria in 1938, while crossing the Ebro region with the Republican army during the Spanish Civil War.

“After realising the potential of old medical material to understand modern infectious diseases, I got hooked and we’re currently sourcing more slides from medical and museum collections to understand where malaria emerged first and then spread to other regions of the world.”

van Dorp L, Gelabert P, RieuxA et al. Plasmodium vivax Malaria viewed through the lens of an eradicated European strain. Molecular Biology and Evolution 2 December 2019.

Tags: Europe | General Health | Genetics | North America | South America | UK News

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